Day 50 – May 30th – The final post
Firstly a very big thank you to David Lim for posting dispatch’s on my behalf over the last few days while I have been high up on the mountain. If I had realised he had been re-printing my fumbled, hypoxic, freezing finger created text messages from my Sat phone word for word I would have tried to make them more readable!
I am now sitting at basecamp waiting to leave for the two day drive back to Kathmandu tomorrow. This will be the last blog I intend to post, so I wanted to give a final overview of these last few exciting days high on Everest.
The trip from Basecamp to Interim camp and then onto Advanced Basecamp at 6350m was uneventful, however I felt stronger and more acclimatised on this walk-up than I had ever had on the previous 3 trips, all good signs that I was in good shape.
Our whole schedule was aimed at summiting on the 27th May. From extensive analysis on a daily basis of the forecasts, the 27th looked like it would allow us 2 days of good weather on the 25th and 26th to get from the North Col (7050m) to Camp 2 (7600m) and Camp 3 (8300m), then allow us a perfect summit day opportunity on the 27th.
We had a rest day at ABC before heading up the fixed ropes to the North Col. The north col campsite at 7050m is where the altitude really starts to make it miserable to live. We stayed two nights here , with a ‘rest day’ to acclimatise. ‘Rest day’ is a misnomer for this period. I could not sleep a wink for the two complete nights, got very bored, could not eat and felt much weaker at the end of 2 days as we set-out for Camp 2 at 7600m.
My original plan was to start using oxygen from Camp 2 itself. However due to the threat of Pulmonary edema (H.A.P.E) returning, and after discussion with Jamie we decided I should go on low flow oxygen climbing from the North Col to camp 2 as an insurance against H.A.P.E. So I loaded up a 4kg bottle of oxygen into my backpack and asked Nima Sherpa to turn on the flow for me, then set-off up the fixed ropes towards camp 2. Immediately I felt awful, claustrophobic and suffocating and could only move at a shuffle. 5 steps maximum at a time then I would be bent over gasping for breath to a point I wanted to vomit. “I thought oxygen was meant to make things easier rather than harder” I thought to myself. After two hours of this struggle I was ready to turn around, I could not keep going and was still a long way from camp 2. I collapsed into the snow and rested while Jamie caught upto me and had a discussion in Nepali with Nima, Nima as it turned out had set my oxygen at 0.5 l/minute. This is fine if you are resting or sleeping – not if you are working hard though. At Jamie’s advice Nima cranked it up to 1 l/minute and immediately I felt the difference. I stood up straighter and could move at a very slow but continual pace uphill, without the need for the emergency stops every 5 steps. It was a good introduction to using oxygen and I kept a close eye on my own flow rates from this point forward.
That night at Camp 2 I slept on oxygen. Not that I had beautiful uninterrupted sleep, however I managed to finally catch some rest, much better than the north col where for the previous two nights I had got no sleep.
The next day we set-off for Camp 3. With my oxygen cranked upto 2l/minute I slowly plodded up the fixed ropes.
Without meaning any dis-respect to Mt Everest, the climbing from North Col to Camp 2, and Camp 2 to Camp 3, is perhaps the most boring, tedious, painful and exhausting climb I have ever done on a mountain. Not steep enough to make the climbing technically demanding or committing, yet not gentle enough to be a walk it is an awkward climb where I can never break into a comfortable movement of crampon technique. It is easily the most physically demanding and exhausting activity I have ever performed. The effort required to move each foot higher is a huge mental and physical battle. You move for 5 steps until you feel your lungs will explode, then stop, rest and pant for 20 – 30 breaths. During this time your whole body tells you that you cannot go any further, you must turn around, it is impossible to move any higher. Gradually as your breath returns you realise you may be able to move again – then slowly start off on another torturous 5 steps. And so the cycle repeats – hour upon hour upon hour.
Arriving at Camp 3 at 8300m, the highest campsite on earth, was just an incredible experience. The relief at arriving there after 7 hours of self imposed lung tearing exhausting torture was too much for words. As the snow started falling we crawled into our tents and lay there sucking on our oxygen. Trying to think through our oxygen starved brains about what was needed to be done. At this height one thing at a time is all that can occupy your mind. We had arrived around 4PM, and were scheduled to leave around 11:30PM that night on our summit bid. There is so many things to do in this time. Get into the tent, change into warmest clothing, melt water, drink as much as possible, prepare gear for summit push, turn on sat phone and send update to David Lim, try and sleep or rest for at least 30 minutes or an hour. All tasks which seem trivial and small when sitting at sea level, however when lying in a freezing tent at 8300m tethered to your oxygen mask, thinking slowly and hazily through your hypoxic brain they become major chores to be dealt with one by one, deliberately and slowly with many rest stops in between.
Getting ready to leave for the summit push requires at least 2 hours preparation time. Thus at 10PM after a 45 minute doze, I woke to begin the 101 tedious tasks to prepare myself to climb to the summit of the world.
Immediately I noticed a problem. The tent was being buffeted by strong gusts of wind. “why is this happening? We have been waiting for ten days for this summit window and there is meant to be no wind”. It was also bitterly cold. We had ice and snow built up over everything single thing inside our tent. It was definitely not the summit morning we had hoped for however as I heard no sign of postponement over the radio from Jamie I continued my preparation. Luke my tentmate had struggled desperately over the last 2 days with a stomach problem which had robbed him of all energy and he had only just made it to camp 3. Thus he had made the wise decision to not attempt the summit this morning.
So I started through the tedious list of preparations: open chemical hand and feet warmers( at least 2hrs before departure) – at this height they don’t activate properly due to lack of oxygen so I need to take off my oxygen mask and hold the hand warmers inside the mask to drench them in oxygen in order to activate the chemical warming process (during which time I drift away into a hypoxic daze), melt ice to fill water bottles, eat something hot (almost impossible), drink at least one mug of something, fill pockets on down suit strategically with camera, sunscreen, energy bars, toilet paper, water bottles inside suit so they don’t freeze, put on climbing harness while lying down in tent (not easy), unfreeze boot inners, put on boot inners, put on outer boots, change oxygen bottle to new bottle, check jumar and climbing accessories, put on neck gaitor, balaclava, inner gloves, head torch, spare head torch, and so the list goes on.
All these things are done while lying horizontally, squeezed in a tiny tent, in -25 degrees, where hands out of gloves freeze in a few seconds.
By 11:30 I was ready to leave the tent. This is when things started to go wrong. I needed to switch to a new oxygen bottle. However the valve on the new oxygen bottle I had was filled with ice and I could not screw the regulator on it. After trying many things clumsily with my gloves on I finally resorted to taking off the gloves and taking out my hand warmers and holding then around the valve which slowly started to melt the ice. After ten minutes off this melting and me blowing hard into the valve the last piece of ice came free and I managed to screw the regulator on. My hands were very cold by this stage. Checking the dial on the regulator I was horrified to see that the bottle I had just plugged into was only half full. I personally was allocated two bottles for summit day. On 2 litres per minute this would allow me 8 hours of life saving oxygen per bottle. One for getting up the hill and one for getting down. (Some other members has opted for additional oxygen). Running out of oxygen is not a good option high on Everest. It generally means you will stay forever within a few feet of where your oxygen finishes. Thus I was pretty upset to see the dial only registering half full and immediately got on the radio to request if there was another full bottle somewhere I could use.
Once I got a full bottle and had everything plugged in, I stepped out of the tent into the bitterly cold and windy night. Next step was to put on crampons. Once you are wearing a bulky down suit with balaclava and hood over your head with an oxygen mask covering your face, your vision becomes severely impaired. Especially looking downwards to your feet. As I bent over to fix my crampons on my feet I realised my crampon straps had frozen. With my hands in gloves I could not get the straps through the buckles. I shouted to Nima through the howling wind to ask him to help me. After some time struggling away on his knees Nima also gave up. “F$%K” I screamed for not the first time that night. Resorting to the inevitable I took my gloves off, crouched down and started working on the straps. Slowly I got the straps tightened however it really froze my hands further and by this time they were very painful.
I had not planned to wear goggles but the wind and snow was gusting in so strongly that I quickly changed my mind. As I pulled my goggles out of my pocket and stretched them over my head – bang, they exploded and flew to pieces in the wind. Lesson learnt – don’t buy cheap goggles. Stuffing my hands into my large over mitts I was finally really to head up the steep fixed ropes into the night towards the summit ridge of Everest. I knew I would have trouble handing my climbing jumars with my thick overmitts, so once again had to take them off to handle my jumar on the fixed ropes. As I started to climb higher up into the night, with the wind and snow gusting into my face forcing me to keep my eyes closed, my hands freezing, I started to think – “this is not good, this is not the right summit day, my hands are too cold, how am I going to be able to see without goggles, what is wrong with the weather – this was meant to be a calm evening”
After 30 minutes of climbing, my fingers were extremely painful and I knew I had to do something about them. I stopped climbing and allowed Jim and Ismail to delicately pass me on the ropes, then had a very quick discussion with Jamie. “I am going down – need to rewarm my hands” I screamed to him. “OK – you just had a bad start, this wind will drop down in 2 – 3 hours time, go down re-warm your hands and start again” replied Jamie.
So down I retreated to the tent and dove back in – much to Luke’s surprise, then began a painful exercise of re-warming my hands. Jamie’s news that the wind would drop in 2 -3 hours heartened me and I planned to warm up then start again when the wind dropped. As I sat in the tent with Luke listening to the radio traffic between Jamie and the climbers it started to become apparent the wind was not subsiding. We got news from lower on the mountain that Andrew Lock had aborted his oxygen-less attempt around mid-night – he was starting from Camp 2 in an attempt to summit that day and was reporting wind gusts of close to 100km/hour which were knocking him off his feet.
Radio comm’s with Jamie told us it was desperately cold and windy on the ridge, thus I was not motivated to get out of the tent to start to re-start my climb. Ismail then made a very wise decision to return to camp, fearing the risk of frostbite to be too much. This turned out to be a very wise decision, made by himself personally without being forced, and as it turned out he returned with minor frost bite injuries to his face.
Further comm’s with Jamie revealed the wind was definitely not dropping and that the danger of frostbite was becoming much to high. He made the decision to re-call all the climbers. What unfolded over the next few hours seemed to be the sequel to “Into thin air” as I witnessed first hand the decisions that individual climbers and sherpa’s driven by complete inexperience, personal ambition or commercial benefit make at high altitude.
Jim Morrow was the next to turn around. If anyone on our entire expedition deserved to summit it was Jim. Humble, experienced, tough, completely honest and sincere, Jim is a true outdoors man who was here for completely the right reasons, because he genuinely loves it. At 60 years old, Jim came to Everest with completely no ego, I never once heard him complain in 2 months and with higher blood saturation levels and lower resting heart rate levels than any other team member(i.e meaning he was basically one of the fittest) he deserved his chance to stand at the top of the world. Unfortunately with all Jim’s outdoor experience he slightly misread the signs and returned to Camp 3 with frost-bitten fingers.
That left only two climbers, Esther and Ken. They were the only two from our group who were climbing with the support of personal sherpa’s. As they were relying completely on their personal sherpa’s for radio contact with Jamie they were not in direct contact with Jamie themselves. It seemed their Sherpa’s were either failing to understand the message to turn around or making their own decisions, with one sherpa turning off his radio completely which did not help communication.
As I sat in the tent and felt the wind and snow buffeting the fabric, I got the news from lower down there was storm coming in for the afternoon. This sent a chill down my spine. If I had been a gambling man I would have immediately placed a large amount of money on the fact we were going to have dead teammates by the end of the day. How could they not make the decision themselves to turn around? Could not they not tell that they were still so far from the summit that by the time they got there they still had to get all the way down? Could they not tell the weather was not getting any better and that the afternoon could be worse? Some quick mental calculations in my head on the time made me realise that they would be reaching the summit in a time of around 12 hours. 12 hours – the time drilled into our heads time and time again by Jamie that after which most people will die on the descent. It was a scary and frustrating time.
The issue with climbing Everest – is not so much of getting to the summit. But is one of getting back down safely. If you get in trouble then it a terrible risk of life for teammates to try to come to rescue in bad weather especially above 8000m. Thus as I have said from day one – on Everest, it is your responsibility to be independent and confident of getting to the top and back down again yourself, so as not to put other people’s life in jeopardy.
Fortunately the message finally got through to Esther and her personal Sherpa Kami and she turned around. This was too late to save the damage that had already been done to her face, and she lost vision in one eye and frost bite to a large area of one side of her face. But she made it back to camp 3, and was short roped into Advanced Basecamp the next day.
That left Ken still heading to the top. My details are sketchy of this as around this time,I had made the decision to head down the mountain with Ismail and Luke and lost contact with what happened. I had spoken with Jamie about the option of staying at 8300m for the day and making an attempt the next day – Jamie confirmed the forecast was not good for the next day and waiting around at 8300m in the deathzone is completely not an option unless you have lots of oxygen. Thus he suggested I descend to ABC. As it turned out the next day was a potentially summitable day with lower wind – by then I was ready to shoot the weather forecasters.
Ken continued to the top with three sherpa’s, had issues with his vision when his cornea’s froze, and had a harrowing descent where he had to walk in the footsteps of his Sherpa as he could not see well. Fearing the onset of cerebral edema his sherpa had radioed Jamie requesting more support. It turned out that Ken and the 3 Sherpa’s were the only ones to summit that day.
It was a magnificent achievement for Ken and the 3 sherpa’s to reach the summit of the world – however a very controversial decision which cut things extremely close to the line and could very easily have turned out much worse.
As we descended down from Camp 3 to Camp 2 – the snow and wind picked up again, forcing Ismail, Luke and myself temporarily into a tent at Camp 2. We brewed up and sucked back on our oxygen while looking up at the summit of Everest with worry trying not to imagine the struggle which must be happening up there to get down. Ismail was showing signs of severe exhaustion, muttering incoherently and moving very slowly. As we waited in the tent Jim, caught up to us. He also looking exhausted and did not stop at Camp 2 but continued down.
Very soon I left Camp 2 and headed down also. As I moved down over the rocky section onto the 500m vertical metres of snow slope which leads down to the North Col – I saw Jim trip as he descended the fixed rope and tumble down a number of metres until he managed to stop himself. As he tried to stand again up he fell and tumbled again and slid all the way into the anchor only to be stopped by his thumb which jammed hard into the knot in the anchor. His ski pole, hat and goggles dropped out and I watched then slide and bounce their way down towards the North Col.
When I got to him he was lying there, sucking on his oxygen and trying to get his breath. He was completely exhausted and very dehydrated. By now Jim (and all of us)had been awake and moving for well over 30 hours. I suggested he rappel the ropes instead of trying to walk frontwards down the steep slopes in his tired state. As Jim finally got to his feet it became clear he was too exhausted to even handle the ropes, so I set up his abseil device and slowly walked down behind him for hour after hour. We soon had a system where stopping at each anchor point I would quickly swap his abseil device over to the next rope and off he would go, backing down in an exhausted dream world. I would direct him left and right as he slowly backed down (for some reason he wanted to keep walking off the south face of the ridge). Finally we reached the North Col as the darkness fell, I finally took off my oxygen mask which had anchored to my face for 4 days solid, collapsed into the tents and slept almost the complete night – at 7050m without oxygen this is a sign of how tired I was feeling.
The next day we stumbled our way down the fixed ropes from the North Col and into Advanced basecamp. I was starting to think about another summit attempt however in my exhausted state was a not a nice thought. Any small uphill rise left me crawling along pathetically slowly, stopping every few steps to rest. How could I expect to climb from ABC, another 2500m vertical metres back up to the roof of the world in this state? I could barely walk up the 5m to the toilet. It was obvious I would need a significant rest period before going high again. That night at ABC I got a check of the forecast (which by now I was becoming very sceptical of) and the news could not have been worse. Strong winds for the next ten days. The other problem was the snow. There was far too much snow on the mountain for this time of the year and more was coming every day. It should be very dry this time of the year – not covered in white powder which we needed to plow through up high. The season was effectively over.
So here I am back at basecamp. Tomorrow we will leave for the two day drive back to Kathmandu. I have a roller coast of emotions. I am naturally a little disappointed. Disappointed that after working so hard for one year, training, raising money, preparing, then coming to the mountain here and struggling for 2 months, going through the nightmare of H.A.P.E and returning to climb high again, that at the end of the day, it came down to an inaccurate weather forecast and us choosing the wrong day to attempt to summit the mountain.
I am also relieved, the emotional stress of going high again with the thought of having a ticking time bomb in my chest ready to explode( H.A.P.E) was mentally very tough. Now I can relax. I made a promise to Stephanie I would return from Mt Everest. That promise hung over my head every day of this trip but even more so after the H.A.P.E issue. I knew deep down that it was beyond my power to promise her this. It is such a relief to know I that I have managed to uphold this.
I also definitely feel very humbled. Humbled at having the opportunity to be here and climb to 8350m on the mighty slopes of this massive mountain. Where so many great men and woman have come and gone before.
But mainly now I am excited. So excited about the future ahead. Getting back to enjoy all the comforts of civilisation which we normally take for granted. Seeing Stephanie again. Watching a movie. Wearing shorts and a tee-shirt. Eating Singapore’s great food. I came to Everest and I climbed to 8350m, I got through H.A.P.E, I got through tooth abscesses, I got to the highest campsite on earth. I managed to look after myself and avoid frostbite. What is there not to be happy about? There is so many things in this wonderful world we live in I am looking forward to plan and experience. It makes me smile just writing this.
Last but not least I want to thank all of you who have been with me on this journey. When lying in my tent shivering away breathing oxygen after an exhausting days climbing, it was a magic feeling to turn on my sat phone and download the warm and wonderful messages of support from so many people. Sorry I could not reply to you all. I am sorry if I have let anyone down, all I can say is I tried my best on Everest this year – I gave it everything I had. I never wanted to be dragged to the top of the world by Sherpa’s. Even if my hands had been warmer on summit day I would not have continued to the summit as I was not confident I would have able to get down again safely and it went against every mountaineering instinct I have built up over 12 years of independent climbing around the world to continue in those conditions.
Right now I want away from this mountain. I want Stephanie, I want sunshine, green grass, beer, nice food and the company of good friends. That will last for a month or two until I am ready for the next challenge.
Will it be Everest again?
Watch this space……
This is Axe signing out with the most sincere and humblest thanks for the last time from Everest Basecamp 2011.